In ‘a must-win for us,’ Liberty even series with Sun at 1-1

Alexa Philippou, ESPNSep 27, 2023, 12:47 AM ET

CloseCovers women’s college basketball and the WNBA
Previously covered UConn and the WNBA Connecticut Sun for the Hartford Courant
Stanford graduate and Baltimore native with further experience at the Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times and Cincinnati Enquirer

NEW YORK — A day that started in celebration for the New York Liberty as Breanna Stewart was named WNBA MVP ended in further positivity and relief for the team as it evened its semifinal playoff series with the Connecticut Sun at 1-1 with an 84-77 victory Tuesday night.

After being stunned in Game 1 with a 15-point home loss, the No. 2 seed Liberty used a big second half in which they outscored the No. 3 seed Sun 46-35 to swing momentum back in their favor as the series heads to Connecticut.

“I think there’s just a different mentality when you’re down one,” said guard Sabrina Ionescu, who finished with a team-high 21 points. “This was a must-win for us. We weren’t going to lose two at home, especially in front of this crowd that’s supported us already all year long, and especially how far we’ve just come as a team, understanding that a lot of the mistakes that we made in that first game were in our control. Coming into Game 2, it was controlling the controllables and playing our style of basketball, and if we did that, everything else would take care of itself.

“We were able to see what it felt like to have one slip away and not let that happen again tonight.”

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All five Liberty starters finished in double figures as New York scored 21 more points than it managed in Game 1, which was its worst offensive outing of the season. Ionescu and Betnijah Laney led the way, with the former getting downhill often and hitting all 10 of her free throws and the latter knocking down a career-high five 3s on seven attempts.

Stewart, now a two-time MVP, came through with an 11-point, 11-rebound double-double while also managing 5 assists, 5 blocks and 2 steals.

“Everyone made the plays that helped us win this game and did their job,” Ionescu said.

Added coach Sandy Brondello: “We knew we had to win this game to win on our home court. We were just pushing each other. You could see a very connected team today.”

The Liberty’s offense wasn’t perfect, but it was closer to its typical form Tuesday than it had been in Game 1. New York boasted 10-for-26 shooting from 3 (38.5%), its highest clip from the arc of the postseason to date, and went 16-for-16 on free throws, its second-most points and attempts from the line so far in the playoffs. The Liberty also finished with 16 fast-break points (13 in the second half) after compiling zero in Game 1 of the series.

“We moved the ball more, we played at pace,” Brondello said of her team’s offensive improvements. “[Connecticut’s defense is] aggressive, they’re really tough … just spacing the floor and having really good screening and moving.”

The Liberty’s decision to switch to a zone defense also paid dividends, not just in slowing down the Sun and helping with rebounding but also in allowing those stops to help fuel their offense. Their 32 possessions of zone defense were the most they’ve played in a game this season, per Synergy Sports and ESPN Tracking.

“They did what they’re supposed to do,” Sun coach Stephanie White said. “They’re where they are for a reason. They’ve got a lot of weapons, and it’s tough to contain them all each and every game.”

The Sun never trailed by more than 10 points, and in the second quarter had jumped ahead by as many as 12. Tiffany Hayes, who is in her first season with the Sun after spending her entire career with Atlanta, tied a playoff career high with 30 points to lead Connecticut, while DeWanna Bonner added 19.

Games 3 and 4 will be held at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville on Friday and Sunday, respectively.

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